By J.F. Finn and Duncan Paterson of Gensler
Across the globe, people have replaced in-person visits to sports and entertainment venues, retail centers, convention facilities and other mixed-use environments with virtual gatherings and Zoom meetings.
Yet the prevailing view in commercial real estate is that virtual engagement is not a long-term solution for authentic human interaction. In fact, the current crisis is only reinforcing the vital role that public spaces play in bringing people together and promoting health and well-being.
The question is, “What has to change for mixed-use developments to be both safe and vibrant?”
Here are some scenarios and opportunities we believe can help designers and developers transition into the “new normal” requirements for mixed-use environments and public spaces.
Modular Building Will Gain Traction
COVID-19 has created an acute need for pop-up, flexible and adaptable spaces — facilities that are tailor-made for modular construction.
This current surge in demand will both accelerate the removal of many existing barriers to the growth of modular construction and provide some very compelling advantages in the future. These changes should usher in more viable U.S. manufacturers to market as other industries begin to recognize the many benefits of modular construction.
Fabricating and assembling building components offsite in contained warehouses could prove to be a healthier alternative to traditional construction. It could also be a faster way to construct and deliver facilities quickly to address the crisis — consider the potential to add housing stock to the vast surface parking lots at retail and lifestyle centers.
Modular building systems also reduce certain risks for developers of mixed-use and multi-phased projects. The use of modular construction makes these developments less reliant on market timing.
Developers can thus advance projects knowing modular designs can be more easily adapted to much of the existing groundwork and infrastructure which represent early components of mixed-use projects. Since markets often shift during a three- or four-year design and construction period, modular systems make it easier to adapt to changing factors.
Gensler designed The Hub on Causeway, a 2 million-square-foot mixed-use project at the site of the former Boston Garden, the original home of the Bruins and Celtics. The Hub on Causeway includes a commercial podium using the principles of modular design, although the majority of the project was built traditionally.
The modular thought process and “plug-in” approach to the podium enabled the team to quickly and readily adapt the hotel footprint for the 272-room citizenM hotel in Boston. This approach helped the team undertake a rapid and significant modification to the office tower which helped the client secure a major tenant, allowing for the customization of the office tower to meet the tenant’s needs in the 450,000-square-foot space.
Renewed Focus on Health, Safety
Designers must understand and address ways in which mixed-use spaces can be made healthier and safer. Some of these required actions are already embedded in the planning and designing of mixed-use developments.
Given the leverage of building systems in integrated mixed-use developments, these interventions may be more rapidly adopted. Here are several actions or interventions we could soon be seeing:
- Healthy building standards will come to the forefront. WELL Building Standard, Passive House or other certifications will become hyper-focused on the air we breathe. These systems and others like them will help ensure the safer interchange of clean air in built environments and help address “air hygiene.”
- Introduction of outside air will play a bigger part in new buildings. Fresh, clean air not only helps maintain healthier environments, but also dilutes the human-to-human passage of airborne elements. The Tower at PNC Plaza, a new office headquarters and mixed-use development in Pittsburgh, helped pioneer façade systems that allow high-rise buildings to “breathe,” serving as a prototype for the next generation of living buildings.
- Smaller, horizontal distribution systems will likely become more prevalent. A typical mid- or high-rise building today distributes air vertically. While efficient from certain perspectives, this one-size-fits-all approach is not the most effective way to control, monitor and distribute air to occupants. Smaller packages and horizontal distribution keep ductwork more responsive to specific occupants’ needs and helps isolate zones.
- Foyers and building lobbies will be able to provide safer and cleaner shared environments. Retrofitting entire buildings is cumbersome and costly; therefore, these transitional spaces will be particularly important for the larger communal spaces and assembly areas that often anchor a mixed-use development. Arenas, convention facilities and even airports are already set up — primarily for security purposes post-9/11 — to have transitional spaces that are much simpler to modify or adapt. Sensors and other scanning technologies can also help re-acclimate people to public gathering spaces.
Self-Sustaining Districts Will See Resurgences
Mixed-use developments are most efficient and effective when they leverage a diversity of uses and users to create a balanced, dynamic and integrated space.
This means that both the physical construction — the infrastructure, systems and assemblage of uses — and the human places — the public spaces, communal areas and places for dynamic collision — can create the kinds of extraordinary destinations that provide the maximum return on capital and human investment. This placemaking happens when we can create or embrace mixed-use communities and districts.
Microgrids and District Energy represent ways of creating efficiencies in these settings. A microgrid is a localized energy source with control capability, which means it can both connect and disconnect from the traditional grid and function independently as physical or economic conditions might warrant.
Microgrids provide several advantages and are particularly well-suited to mixed-use properties. Developers and municipalities are increasingly looking at microgrids as a way of providing highly targeted, flexible and efficient utility services to districts or large-scale developments.
Microgrids can also effectively integrate various sources of energy, especially from onsite renewable sources, and allow these districts to operate and behave independently and autonomously.
To Wrap It Up
Integrated districts forge human connections. Mixed-use environments bring the best of residential and commercial architecture together and create shared environments. Unlike single-use developments, a mix of uses forms the backbone of diverse, self-sustaining districts and connected communities.
People want to be connected, and these districts bring goods and services closer to inhabitants, provide better support mechanisms, and even make it easier to contain and communicate health concerns. By designing and developing better hyper-local, integrated mixed-use districts, we create healthier, safer and more connected communities.